Violence in families: Assessment and planning responses
Updated: 12 June 2015
What's Important To Us
Living in violent homes poses a number of risks to the safety and wellbeing of children and young people. Being resolutely child-centred within the context of adult conflict and intra-familial violence is central to ensuring the voice and needs of the child or young person are heard and adequately responded to.
This key information highlights the most significant factors and issues for social workers to consider as part of their evaluation of strengths, risks and needs with families/whānau.
This could be when determining our initial response, as part of a multi-agency family violence meeting, or when under taking a care and protection assessment.
When determining the most appropriate response to children and young people living with violence, we need to look beyond the most recent incident. Careful consideration of previous violence and other needs and risks is essential. This information helps us make sense of what is happening for the family/whānau now, coupled with an understanding of which services or support were effective, or not, in the past.
When determining your response to a report of concern concentrate on issues such as whether the violence is new or if previously noted, what responses were tried before? What was the impact for the child or young person?
Refer to the Assessment and decision making policy for more detailed information.
Children as part of a sibling group are likely to be affected in different ways. Think about the needs of each child in the home, their age, developmental stage and their own sense of what is going on. Assessing the impact of the situation for each individual child or young person is essential in all areas of the work you do.
Understanding the history of the people involved in the report of concern is also essential to your initial evaluation of the current situation, so we can bring information about the victim and perpetrator's strengths and risks to the overall analysis of what this means for the child or young person. This will include partners and others who may live in or regularly visit the home. Working closely with partner organisations such as Work and Income, the Police and health practitioners will enable you to gather information to support your assessment of who is able to help in providing safety for the child or young person.
Any previous contact with the child(ren) or the adults involved will be reflected in case records. Report of concern documentation will include information from case history, lifting out key events from the past and outcomes. Bring forward the information in case history to the context of your current assessment. Your evaluation of what is happening now, what issues are causing concern for the child or young person's safety and wellbeing and where there are strengths and resources will rely upon good information about what has happened before. Remember contact records form part of case history records and need to be considered as part of this work in conjunction with information from other agencies such as Family Safety Teams, schools, community agencies or health organisations such as Plunket and GPs.
Family violence often operates within a cyclical pattern and children and young people can be repeatedly referred to services for support and intervention. A clear record that highlights key aspects of work undertaken in the past, (such as rationale for decision making, when and how we engaged with the child or young person, impact of the violence) will greatly assist you in determining the most appropriate response now.
If our outcome is no further action then a clear rationale for why the children or young people do not need to be seen will help to determine future responses. In determining a 'no further action' outcome, you will be satisfied that the risks and needs of the children or young people have been adequately assessed and there are no presenting issues requiring support.
Living with violence often has an impact on emotional health and development that is unseen or well hidden by adaptive coping strategies or the age or development stage of the child or young person means the harm caused is not yet visible. Apply the family violence triggers to the situation you are working with to help you in your consideration of critical issues such as cumulative harm.
Risk is dynamic and can change. Whether we are assessing the strengths, risks and needs of a child or young person (using the Tuituia framework) or are working out a plan of support, understanding the particular factors and times which can influence their safety, is essential.
Part of our assessment is being clear about the way in which a child or young person is likely to be affected by risks posed directly or indirectly to them. For example, how does physical assault on the adult victim present a threat to the child, or how does witnessing violence effect their emotional health and development? Some risks will present as immediate, others will be more medium term or cumulative, gathering in impact over time.
Alongside common risk factors such as the age of the child or young person, parent’s own history of care, transience, drug and alcohol use or mental ill-health there are additional considerations social workers need to pay specific attention to whenever assessing a child or young person's strengths, needs and risks within the context of intra-familial violence:
- responding differently to repeat incidents is central to addressing cumulative harm and helping families/whānau work towards change. Think about what needs and strengths a child or young person and the family/whānau/caregivers possess and how they can be used to inform a plan that builds safety and creates enduring change
- information about changes to or escalating violence and what this might mean for the safety of the child or young person involved
- for repeat reports of concern, consider the outcomes to previous reports of concern. What aspects of those outcomes were effective? What helping strategies empower the victim and the wider family/whānau and address the child or young person's needs?
- having a history of abuse in conjunction with power and control dynamics can impact on the capacity to meet the needs of a child or young person. For example a parent or caregiver may not be able to get their children to school on time or provide hugs and kisses when needed. Consider this information in the context of parent or family/whānau member's history and pay attention to these behaviours if they are reported.
Pay careful attention to any behaviour that the child or young person may be demonstrating. Children can blame themselves for the violence and are more likely to show signs of how the violence is affecting them through their behaviours. Young people may exhibit violent behaviour themselves, struggle with school attendance or get involved in the violence between their parents by taking a protective role or as an expression of their anger at the perpetrator.
Understanding parenting or caregiver capacity
The inability to provide adequate supervision, care and attention to the physical, health and emotional needs of a child or young person is a common consequence of violent behaviour in households. Neglect happens when the parent or caregiver is either incapacitated (both emotionally and physically) by their abusive experience, is unable to protect the child or young person from the violent environment, or their willingness to provide adequate care diminishes
The power and control dynamic can affect the non-abusive parent's ability to make good choices for themselves and possibly their child. Children and young people tell us their main sources of support are their mothers and their peers (Humphries, 2008). The best interests of the child or young person will often mean maintaining their relationship with their parents although this may present competing tensions and challenges. You will need to balance and weigh all the options to secure a child or young person's safety within the context of intra-familial violence. Empowering the non-abusive parent, the wider family/whānau and consideration of their support needs will form an important part of your evaluation.
Specific risk factors to consider when there is violence in families/whānau
Thinking about family violence risk assessment in this way closely mirrors those factors partner organisations use in their evaluation of seriousness. Using these factors in your practice will provide opportunities for greater shared understanding and collaborative working. Involving other organisations with expertise in the field of intra-familial violence helps to work out what needs to happen for a child or young person to be cared for safely as they are a good source of skill and knowledge:
- Pregnancy: victims of family violence are at heightened risk during pregnancy and the violence may well escalate at this time
- Separation: children and young people are particularly vulnerable when the adult victim and perpetrator separate and during contact with the perpetrator once the relationship has ended
- Escalating violence: violence can become normalised within the family/whānau, and patterns of increasing violence not recognised for its seriousness
- Weapons: having access to a firearm or threats to use knives and other weapons indicate a heightened risk
- Threats to or attempted strangulation: research shows threats and attempted strangulation are signs that a woman's life is seriously at risk
- Stalking: intimidating behaviour like stalking that signals attempts to exert more control
- Threats to injure or kill: threats to harm or self-harm by either the perpetrator or victim; injuries and assaults to either the child or young person or the adult.
Using the risk factors in practice
Talking with the abused parent or caregiver about the nature and degree of the violence taking place, can feel like a challenging and difficult conversation to start. You may have concerns about undertaking your assessment in a way that is safe for the person involved. Some strategies you can use to help you in this work:
- Copy and laminate the risk factors above, take them with you as part of your visiting resource and use them in your conversation: ‘These are some of the factors that we know are important to consider when there is violence in families/whānau. Let's go through them together.'
- Use of scaling: When you are talking with someone about the risk factors, use scaling to unpack the level of impact for them. Further explore the scale result by talking about what two steps up the scale would look like and what would need to be different to achieve that improvement? What strengths and resources can be mobilised to support that change?
- Questions to help you in your conversation: like the risk factors, you can copy and laminate these to use as prompts when you are talking with a parent or caregiver. Some are open type questions, some need to be direct and behaviour specific, especially when you are assessing risk. You will be using some of the same skills you would use when talking with a child or young person about a difficult or abusive situation; attentive listening, empathy, acknowledging violence is not ok, provision of support to work out the next steps:
- 'Are you OK?'
- 'Violence in families is common and so we talk with children, young people and their families/whānau about this as part of our assessment work'
- 'Is someone making you feel unsafe at home? In what way?'
- 'How frightened or fearful are you?'
- 'I have a list of some particular things that we know are important for us to talk about with parents or caregivers experiencing violence at home. Let’s have a look at them together'.
When bringing your analysis together in your assessment sometimes you need a guide. The family violence triggers provide you with practice prompts to consider when bringing all of your information together. Used in conjunction with other triggers, they assist in guiding your thinking about what might need to happen next and also to check all the required areas have been covered.
They also help you to keep the child or young person at the centre of decision making. As suggested with the questions and risk factors above, use the triggers as part of your work with families/whānau in supporting the direction of your assessment work and exploration with them about what is really going on, the impact for the child or young person and the identification of strengths, family/whānau/hapu/iwi, and community services that will form an important part of what needs to happen next.
Preparing for multi-agency meetings
We have an important role to play in multi-agency meetings as the child or young person is our ‘client’ and therefore your role is to be primarily child centred in the multi-agency forum.
Preparation is key. To be ready for the meeting use the family violence triggers to think about the case history and the current information. Search CYRAS records to get a sense of the history of all the adults involved and what we have previously tried with the family/whānau. This will provide you with some insight in to whether a more intensive response is required this time - even if the current incident is considered low risk to the victim and the child or young person.
Consider the known or potential risk factors, including those outlined above and the factors in the assessment framework.
When checking out the adults involved see if they are connected to other families/whānau and consider if a response is also required for them.
Time might sometimes be a factor when preparing for the meetings - think about what is essential for the meeting, for example parental history with the service and repeated reports of concern for the children or young people and specific points of escalation. Look at key documents in CYRAS, court reports, referrals, assessment and case records for example.
Take the triggers to the meeting, share them with agency partners and use them to help determine a response that meets the needs of the child or young person.